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"Geese in Flight" is the gateway sculpture to the Enchanted Highway, which begins at Exit 72 on Interstate 94 in western North Dakota. Jack Dura / Bismarck Tribune

Lease dispute closes Enchanted Highway sculpture in western ND

GLADSTONE, N.D.—New landowners have closed public access to the flagship sculpture of the Enchanted Highway in a dispute over liability and the creator's lease to the site.

Seth and Kayla O'Donnell purchased a 28-acre parcel for an easement to build their house in February 2017. Included in that acreage is the five-acre site of "Geese in Flight," the 110-foot tall metal attraction at the head of the 32-mile statuary road to Regent in southwestern North Dakota.

In July, the O'Donnells fenced the sculpture's access road immediately north of Exit 72 on Interstate 94. The couple claimed in court documents that the site's liability is unclear while the sculpture is unsafe, in disrepair and attracts trespassers.

They also claim they didn't know about sculptor Gary Greff's lease agreement to the land for "Geese in Flight." Previous landowner David Wanner said he had no evidence Greff's lease existed, according to his affidavit.

Greff sued the O'Donnells late last summer over their road closure. He said Monday that previous landowners have honored his lease to the site and the O'Donnells should have looked into the circumstances of the sculpture on their new land. The O'Donnells claimed they researched "Geese in Flight" before their land purchase.

"Basically, they don't acknowledge there's a lease and they don't want to honor the lease as is, and basically we want the land so I don't have to go through this again," Greff said, adding that he turned down the O'Donnells' offer to buy the land at $30,000 per acre and couldn't agree with Wanner on a price either.

Filed in court documents is a land lease agreement from 2002 between Greff and landowners Douglas and Keith Candee. They agreed to a 20-year lease for $1. Greff, in turn, agreed to indemnify liability for the landowners.

In 2008, the Candees sold the land to Wanner, who signed an agreement in acknowledgement to honor verifiable, previous agreements related to "Geese in Flight."

Seth O'Donnell did not return a message and a phone call seeking comment. Kayla O'Donnell also did not return a message. Their attorney, Sandra Kuntz, was unavailable Monday.

In November, Southwest District Judge William Herauf granted Greff a preliminary injunction for maintenance access at "Geese in Flight." He also ordered Greff to name the O'Donnells on a $2 million commercial liability insurance policy for the site.

Greff said the trial in March will resolve the lease dispute, but added he will likely appeal if he is forced to move the sculpture.

He said relocation could cost more than $100,000. He also said he doesn't know where he'd move the 78-ton sculpture, which he claims to be the largest metal sculpture in the world.

"There's got to be a way that the landowners can give us a share or piece of the land," Greff said, adding that "Geese in Flight" has garnered attention far and wide in the 15 years since its installation.

Meanwhile, the rest of Enchanted Highway sites remain open, but Greff said a negative outcome at trial could affect his lease agreements with other landowners.

Tourism officials say they continue to promote the Enchanted Highway in its entirety.

"It is unique," said Kim Schmidt, public and media relations manager for North Dakota Tourism. "The giant sculptures are quite a draw because it is something you can't experience really anywhere else."

Tourism development manager Dean Ihla said tourism officials have discussed the "unfortunate" closure of "Geese in Flight," adding that photo opportunities remain at the other sites.

Terri Thiel, executive director of the Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau, could offer no visitation numbers for the Enchanted Highway as it's not a ticketed attraction. Visitors do mention it, she added, but she's had no feedback from tourists or locals regarding the closure at "Geese in Flight."

"The Enchanted Highway as a whole has been a great attraction for all of us in western North Dakota," Thiel said. "It's part of the experience of traveling out west. I'd have to say it's one of our valued attractions."

The Bismarck Tribune is a media partner with Forum News Service